Dark chocolate is loaded with nutrients that can positively affect your health.
Made from the seed of the cacao tree, it’s one of the best sources of antioxidants you can find.
Studies show that dark chocolate can improve your health and lower the risk of heart disease.
This article reviews 7 health benefits of dark chocolate or cocoa that are supported by science.
1. Dark chocolate is very nutritious
If you buy quality dark chocolate with a high cocoa content, then it’s quite nutritious.
It contains a decent amount of soluble fiber and is loaded with minerals.
A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 70–85% cocoa contains:
- Fiber: 11 grams
- Iron: 67% of your daily need
- Magnesium: 58% of your daily need
- Copper: 89% of your daily need
- Manganese: 98% of your daily need
In addition, it has plenty of potassium, phosphorus, zinc, and selenium.
Of course, 100 grams (3.5 ounces) is a fairly large amount and not something you should be consuming daily. These nutrients also come with 600 calories and moderate amounts of sugar.
For this reason, dark chocolate is best consumed in moderation.
The fatty acid profile of cocoa and dark chocolate is also good. The fats consist mostly of oleic acid (a heart-healthy fat also found in olive oil), stearic acid, and palmitic acid.
Stearic acid has a neutral effect on body cholesterol. Palmitic acid can raise cholesterol levels, but it only makes up one-third of the total fat calories.
Dark chocolate also contains stimulants like caffeine and theobromine, but it’s unlikely to keep you awake at night, as the amount of caffeine is very small compared with coffee.
Summary: Quality dark chocolate is rich in fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, and a few other minerals.
2. Dark chocolate is a powerful source of antioxidants
ORAC stands for oxygen radical absorbance capacity. It’s a measure of the antioxidant activity of foods.
Researchers set a bunch of free radicals (bad) against a sample of a food and see how well the antioxidants in the food can disarm the free radicals.
The biological relevance of ORAC values is questioned, as it’s measured in a test tube and may not have the same effect on the body.
However, it’s worth mentioning that raw, unprocessed cocoa beans are among the highest-scoring foods that have been tested.
Dark chocolate is loaded with biologically active organic compounds and that function as antioxidants. These include polyphenols, flavanols, and catechins, among others.
One study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity, polyphenols, and flavanols than any other fruits tested, which included blueberries and acai berries.
Summary: Cocoa and dark chocolate have a wide variety of powerful antioxidants. They have way more than most other foods.
3. Dark chocolate may improve blood flow and lower blood pressure
The flavanols in dark chocolate can stimulate the endothelium, the lining of arteries, to produce nitric oxide (NO).
One of the functions of NO is to send signals to the arteries to relax, which lowers the resistance to blood flow and therefore reduces blood pressure.
Many controlled studies show that cocoa and dark chocolate can improve blood flow and lower blood pressure, though the effects are usually mild.
However, one study in people with high blood pressure showed no effect, so take this with a grain of salt.
Given the great variation between studies on this subject, it’s clear that more research is needed.
Summary: The bioactive compounds in cocoa may improve blood flow in the arteries and cause a small but statistically significant decrease in blood pressure.
4. Dark chocolate raises HDL and protects LDL from oxidation
Consuming dark chocolate can improve several important risk factors for heart disease.
Suggested read: 11 science-based health benefits of olive oil
In a controlled study, cocoa powder was found to significantly decrease oxidized LDL (bad) cholesterol in men. It also increased HDL and lowered total LDL for those with high cholesterol.
Oxidized LDL means that the LDL cholesterol has reacted with free radicals.
This makes the LDL particle itself reactive and capable of damaging other tissues, such as the lining of the arteries in your heart.
It makes perfect sense that cocoa lowers oxidized LDL. It contains an abundance of powerful antioxidants that do make it into the bloodstream and protect lipoproteins against oxidative damage.
The flavanols in dark chocolate can also reduce insulin resistance, which is another common risk factor for diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
However, dark chocolate also contains sugar, which can have the opposite effect.
Summary: Dark chocolate improves several important risk factors for disease. It lowers the susceptibility of LDL to oxidative damage while increasing HDL and improving insulin sensitivity.
5. Dark chocolate may reduce heart disease risk
The compounds in dark chocolate appear to be highly protective against the oxidation of LDL.
In the long term, this should cause much less cholesterol to lodge in the arteries, resulting in a lower risk of heart disease.
Several long-term observational studies show a fairly drastic improvement.
In a study of 470 older men, cocoa was found to reduce the risk of death from heart disease by 50% over 15 years.
Another study revealed that eating chocolate two or more times per week lowered the risk of having calcified plaque in the arteries by 32%. Eating chocolate less frequently had no effect.
Yet another study showed that eating dark chocolate more than five times per week lowered the risk of heart disease by 57%.
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A 2017 clinical trial found that subjects who consumed almonds with or without dark chocolate showed improved LDL cholesterol levels.
Of course, these four studies are observational, so it’s unclear exactly if it was the chocolate that reduced the risk.
However, since the biological process is known (lower blood pressure and oxidized LDL), it’s plausible that regularly eating dark chocolate may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Summary: Observational studies show a drastic reduction in heart disease risk among those who consume the most chocolate.
6. Dark chocolate may protect your skin from the sun
The bioactive compounds in dark chocolate may also be great for your skin.
The flavanols can protect against sun damage, improve blood flow to the skin, and increase skin density and hydration.
The minimal erythemal dose (MED) is the minimum amount of UVB rays required to cause redness in the skin 24 hours after exposure.
In one study of 30 people, the MED more than doubled after consuming dark chocolate high in flavanols for 12 weeks.
If you’re planning a beach vacation, consider enjoying some extra dark chocolate in the prior weeks and months. But check with your doctor or dermatologist before forgoing your normal skincare routine in favor of more dark chocolate.
Summary: Studies show that the flavanols from cocoa can improve blood flow to the skin and protect it from sun damage.
7. Dark chocolate could improve brain function
The good news isn’t over yet. Dark chocolate may also improve the function of your brain.
One study of healthy volunteers showed that eating high flavanol cocoa for 5 days improved blood flow to the brain.
Cocoa may also significantly improve cognitive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment. It may improve verbal fluency and several risk factors for disease, as well.
Additionally, cocoa contains stimulant substances like caffeine and theobromine, which may be a key reason why it can improve brain function in the short term.
Summary: Cocoa or dark chocolate may improve brain function by increasing blood flow. It also contains stimulants like caffeine and theobromine.
There is considerable evidence that cocoa can provide powerful health benefits, being especially protective against heart disease.
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Of course, this doesn’t mean you should go all out and consume lots of chocolate every day. It’s still loaded with calories and easy to overeat.
Maybe have a square or two after dinner and try to savor them. If you want the benefits of cocoa without the calories in chocolate, consider making hot cocoa without any cream or sugar.
Also, note that a lot of the chocolate on the market is not nutritious.
Choose quality stuff: dark chocolate with 70% or higher cocoa content.
Dark chocolates typically contain some sugar, but the amounts are usually small, and the darker the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain.
Chocolate is one of the few foods that taste awesome while providing significant health benefits.